Nancy Pierson and her indispensable team of volunteers lift spirits and lower stress whenever they show up with their canine partners from Paws As Loving Support Assistance Dogs.
They were at Riebli Elementary School earlier this month when students returned to class for the first time since fires destroyed more than a quarter of the 460 students’ homes.
They provide comfort in the courtroom, greet anxious travelers at the Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport, aid children with autism, Down syndrome or other special needs, and bring cheer to those who could benefit from a nudge and some unconditional love.
As founder, president and chief executive officer of the Forestville-based nonprofit PALS, Pierson leads a compassionate brigade that showcases the bond between people and animals, specifically dogs.
Teams make scheduled visits to hospitals, homeless shelters, schools, convalescent homes, libraries, and acute care and rehabilitation centers. They also respond to various emergencies and work with the Sonoma County School Crisis Response and Recovery System of Support that aids students and staff during times of trauma.
Rebekah Pope, a social worker with the Sonoma County Office of Education who coordinates the SOS program, said there is “something magical” that happens when PALS dogs interact with students.
“They have this unconditional acceptance and love that kids can sense,” she said. “They’re very straightforward and less complicated than people. By nature, they love people and kids.”
She recalls one boy with emotional difficulties developing a bond with a PALS dog “that he couldn’t have with adults or other students.”
The specially trained dogs, from a 3-pound Chihuahua to an English mastiff weighing more than 160 pounds, welcome gentle hugs and petting and provide calming support and a sense of understanding, no matter the setting or circumstance.
“Dogs can sense and smell things we can’t,” Pierson said. “They’re so intuitive, they feel with their entire being.”
Pierson has countless stories of PALS dogs providing comfort, support and healing — some in miraculous ways.
She witnessed a dog steadfastly remain at the side of a hospice patient with just days to live and watched a comatose 18-year-old college student with a traumatic brain injury respond when Pierson told the woman she was visiting with a dog with “ears that are just like velvet.”
The dog, Pierson’s late golden retriever, Peyton, was sitting at the woman’s bedside in the intensive care unit of a local hospital when the young animal lover moved her head and opened her eyes.
That was Pierson’s first experience “seeing the impact service dogs make in people’s lives” and it had a monumental influence on her.
Since establishing PALS from her rural Forestville home in late 2009, Pierson has worked with numerous agencies and individuals reaching out for the kind of assistance only four-legged companions can provide. (Three-legged as well; two PALS dogs are missing a leg.)
“They’re just soft and fuzzy and they don’t ask anything of you,” she said of PALS dogs. “They’re just there. People respond to them.”
Pierson, a grandmother in her 60s, had some 20 years of experience working with Sonoma County-based service dog agencies before founding PALS. She recognized the growing need to breed, train and place dogs assisting children and adults in numerous capacities.
“It’s my love, it’s my passion, it’s my retirement,” she said. “It’s just totally fulfilling my dream. I thought it would never happen.”
For more information about Paws As Loving Support Assistance Dogs, call 707-887-7257 or visit pawsaslovingsupport.org.